Prosecutor's commitment makes a city neighborhood safer

Making a BGF case, and making Baltimore safer, takes real commitment

Our City of Perpetual Recovery needs follow-through. It needs focus. Baltimore needs institutional grit and determination. It needs public servants with an abiding aversion to unfinished business. Whether carrying out the good or reversing the bad — a crime wave, an underperforming school, a street with a chronic trash problem — we need people with steely commitment. That's what I'm talking about.

Which brings me back to Greenmount Avenue, and an attorney named Thiru Vignarajah.

Two years ago, Vignarajah was head of the Major Investigations Unit of the Baltimore state's attorney's office. He worked for Gregg Bernstein at the time. Police and prosecutors were preparing one of their biggest gang-buster cases in memory — a full-scale attack on the violent Black Guerrilla Family on the east side of the city.

In November 2013, Bernstein and then-police Commissioner Anthony Batts gathered the press near a playground in a place called Mund Park on Greenmount Avenue and announced the indictments of 48 people. It was a big deal.

In fact, I thought a prosecution of that scale had the potential to be a genuine tipping point for Greenmount Avenue, a street known over the previous five decades for all the wrong things — riots (businesses were firebombed and destroyed there in 1968), white flight, vacant houses, poverty, violence, trash, drugs and a long, depressing wait for something better. Mund Park, created for public recreation after the '68 riots, had become a BGF meeting place, a mockery of its original purpose.

And that's why Batts and Bernstein chose Mund Park for their joint press conference: to turn the mockery back on the gang.

Bernstein described a "violent, years-long campaign" to avenge the killings or shootings of BGF members, silence those suspected of talking to police or exact punishment for internal code violations. One of the victims had been a man who dared open a rehabilitation center near a BGF drug corner.

Bernstein said a crew that operated along Greenmount Avenue had carried out dozens of attacks.

More specifically, in a relatively small area bounded by Guilford Avenue, 25th Street, Lanvale Street and Mund Park, there had been 52 shootings in a six-year period, 30 of them homicides. Most of the killings had occurred in the three years before the indictments.

"It was a reign of terror," says Vignarajah, a former federal prosecutor who had clerked for a Supreme Court justice after graduating from Harvard. "It was one of the most violent areas in the history of the city, ruled by one of the most ruthless gangs in the history of the city."

Several of the suspects had a history of arrests for murder, robbery and drug charges that had been dropped or resulted in short sentences. This time, most of the defendants faced charges under the state's gang statute, which had been used only three times in Baltimore. Bernstein expressed the hope that the gang law would make a difference in prosecution.

The case was impressive because of the number of defendants. But the timing was important, too, coming as several redevelopment projects were getting underway or being completed in side streets along Greenmount Avenue. That's why, with sound prosecution, I thought the big BGF bust could be a tipping point for the area.

For about a year before the bust, I had noticed a generally brighter appearance to the streets and sidewalks in Barclay and Greenmount West. There was less trash. There were fewer houses in collapse. The city's Vacants To Value program was active in the area. Several abandoned houses had been auctioned off or demolished. The Telesis Corp. developed new properties on 20th Street at Greenmount, and put them up for sale or rent.

According to Karen Stokes, CEO of Strong City Baltimore (formerly the Greater Homewood Community Corp.), 34 Telesis homes have been sold for between $174,000 and $297,000, and 141 new rental units are occupied. Two more phases of construction are in the pipeline — a neighborhood park at 20th and Barclay, and a mixed-use development along Greenmount.

There's crime in the area, particularly closer to 25th Street, Stokes said, but she doesn't assume it's related to the BGF.

Of course, the city has experienced a surge of violence since this past spring. But in the 18 months following those November 2013 indictments, Vignarajah notes, there were only two shootings, and no homicides, in the area previously ruled by the BGF.

Several of the gang cases have been resolved, some are still pending.

Last week, one of the major BGF defendants, 25-year-old David Hunter, faced sentencing for a 2011 revenge murder before Baltimore Circuit Judge Alfred Nance. Nance sentenced Hunter to two consecutive life terms plus 40 years.

Vignarajah was there, representing the state, and he didn't have to be.

He's now a deputy attorney general who went to work for Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh after Bernstein's loss in the 2014 city election to Marilyn Mosby. But Vignarajah asked to see the case against Hunter to its conclusion. That's what I'm talking about.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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